The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was steaming toward North Korea, the Trump administration insisted two weeks ago. Except that it wasn’t. A Navy press photo showed it thousands of miles away, near Indonesia, and heading south. The official explanation was that the Carl Vinson had to complete a scheduled joint exercise with Australia before turning back to deal with the imminent threat to world peace. The error was compounded by President Trump’s statement that he would be sending submarines “far more powerful than an aircraft carrier”—which is of course absurd.
This episode is a small symptom of America’s weakened Navy. Today, as in the 1920s and ’30s, Washington has forgotten Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to speak softly and carry a big stick. Instead the U.S. lashes out at adversaries with ultimatums, sanctions and embargoes while disarming. Although all branches of the military went through budget and personnel cuts under the Obama administration, the Navy fared the worst. Today the American fleet is less than half the size it was under President Reagan.
Two independent bipartisan commissions have called for the fleet to be increased from its roughly 270 ships to 350, a number President Trump has said he supports. The Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment calls for 355 ships. These proposals weigh budget constraints; otherwise the target would be higher.